A balanced Dungeons & Dragons party is a fundamental part of an enjoyable gaming experience. Yes, you want to make sure you have strong fighters that can use a variety of melee or ranged attacks, some magic users, and definitely at least one person with a healing spell. You want a set of stats for the non-combat parts so that conversations with the hosts go smoothly and potential dangers and traps can be spotted at a glance around the room. Most importantly, you want a group that will be fun together, one who could unexpectedly work together to succeed in his ultimate quest, whatever that may be.
The first season of stranger things – which leaned more towards Dungeons & Dragons than the following two – illustrated a good, balanced party. The core group of kids played neatly against each other (and their official in-game character sheets certainly highlighted a well-calibrated party). And no matter how you split the characters, there was great chemistry and wonderful character moments. But every consecutive season of stranger things has moved away from the D&D aspect – and also from this ideal party.
While the Duffer brothers bring back Dungeons & Dragons stranger things 4, the group dynamic is weaker than ever. Even with the terror in full swing, the charm of the characters is completely drained, replaced with connections that just don’t go well together, but are somehow forced to.
[Ed. note: This review contains some slight spoilers for the first half of the fourth season of Stranger Things.]
Season 4 of stranger things begins with our usual parties scattered around the world, their relationships are strained at best. Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) and her sons Will (Noah Schnapp) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) moved to California with Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). Hopper (David Harbour) is trapped in a Russian prison. The kids at Hawkins hold the line at home, but differing interests have separated the usual core group of friends. Dustin (Gate Matarazzo) and Mike (Finn Wolfhard) are still equally committed to D&D, but Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) joins the basketball team in addition to his tabletop interests.
Meanwhile, Max (Sadie Sink) is still processing her stepbrother’s death and has isolated herself from her friends while moodily listening to Kate Bush on her Walkman. Hawkins’ older teens are all hard at work, with Steve (Joe Keery) and Robin (Maya Hawke) back on the job together, now at the local video store, while Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is on the road as editor of the school newspaper #girlboss. And just to add some fun to the mix, there are two new characters: Stoner Argyle (Eduardo Franco), who is Jonathan’s new (and maybe first?) BFF, and metalhead Eddie (Joseph Quinn), leader of the high’s Hellfire Club School (aka the Dungeons & Dragons Club).
All seems quiet on the monster front until a teenager is found brutally murdered. While the police are quick to point the finger, our brave band of heroes suspect (rightly so) that things may be about to change in Upside Down. In fact, a monster has somehow awakened and haunts its victims, giving them terrifying hallucinations and exploiting their worst fears and memories. The kids of Dungeons & Dragons call it Vecna, a nod to one of the game’s most fearsome villains. If you didn’t catch last season’s fleshmelts, you might be amazed by this season’s gruesome deaths.
Every season from stranger things has certainly increased the brutality and given the characters an even more terrifying threat. But the show doesn’t seem to be enhancing personal connections to the same extent. After the wonder of the first season, each subsequent season faltered a bit, although there were certain characters who ended up sparking unexpected connections. Steve’s takeover as team babysitter in Season 2, for example, or his escapade at the mall with Robin, Dustin, and Erica in Season 3 were two past highlights. But Steve’s infectious charisma seems to be the exception rather than the norm this time around. While his friendship with Robin is a small light in a dark tunnel, it’s not enough to pull everyone else out of trouble.
In a season built on physical distance, the groups seem haphazardly put together out of a need to get people in the same place at the same time. Characters don’t have to how each other to make a strong story. But they should at least have some kind of chemistry on screen. Instead, they all feel like they get along reluctantly, bound to band together even though their stats may make them the least ideal mix of characters to take on a grand mission together.
There’s a charm to returning to these familiar characters. We’ve finally seen them grow up, and while nothing quite compares to the novelty of season one, it’s fun to see them all again and see where they ended up – although admittedly that washes away very quickly when they start picking themselves up behaving in ways that seem counterintuitive to what we know about them. Max, who was made unhappy by her stepbrother, actually thinks he’s cool now. Lucas is now a basketball player which is great! But Mike and Dustin are so mean to him and even ask him to skip the big championship game so he can play Dungeons & Dragons with them. Yes, friendships develop as people grow up, but these kids have been through some shit together. You would hope they were a little more likable.
The Duffers seem to be taking the “show, don’t tell” principle to the extreme. It’s not enough that Eleven is having a hard time at a new school and doesn’t have her powers; We have to see several scenes where she is viciously bullied by the popular kids and tries (and fails) to use her psychic powers against them. Not only do we see Jonathan and Nancy having long-distance issues, we have to listen to several painful and uncomfortable conversations about how things aren’t working out, even though they still love each other, really, deep down. Even though each episode runs for over an hour, the episodes feel packed, but it’s more or less the same over and over again.
At least the horror is fun and builds into some pretty terrifying sequences and vicious killings. The new monster’s mechanics are delightfully spooky, as it plunges its victims into nightmarish hallucinations, but it too suffers from terribly cliche dialogue. That’s the flip side of a humanoid monster – what scary things can it say that haven’t been said a million times? And the new characters add a splash of flavor. Argyle, in particular, gives Jonathan some much-needed ease outside of his family commitments and strained romantic relationship. Eddie is also an irresistibly messy mess of contradictions, a bad boy who really only takes a bunch of misfit kids under his wing, even if he’s still an asshole to them. But they are just two small pieces of work and sadly can’t save the rest of their respective groups.
The groups of adventurers this season have been randomly grouped in a way that might make sense in theory, but becomes flat once they actually come together. For every fun and exciting element introduced, there’s an overwhelming pile of squishy gray mud to wade through. There are a few glimmers of hope in the middle of the mush – a few good dice rolls that will help a group with terrible stats at least slip by. But overall, the terrible party calibration makes those moments rare. With a season that promises movie-length episodes and a runtime that’s “almost twice as long” as season three, that’s a huge liability. It’s likely that they can at least defeat the monster in Part 2, but will they tell an entertaining and entertaining story? The jury isn’t ready on that yet.
The first part of stranger things Season 4 arrives on Netflix May 27 with seven episodes.
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